Salted peanuts, chips, biscuits and packaged namkeen (snacks) vie for space on Bijauli Haldar’s thela (handcart) at Baoli Sahib, a tourist spot near the market in Nanakmatta town. She has been coming here for the last five years and finds that this a prime spot to draw customers.  

Bijauli is in her 60s and says she is often unwell but still shows up every morning with her handcart at this town in the plains of Uttarakhand. The gurudwara in Nanakmatta is a pilgrimage site for Sikhs and there is a dam on the Nandore and Deoha rivers that also draws people.

Four years ago Bijauli experienced a lot of pain in her stomach and went to the Guru Ramdas Hospital where doctors told her she had an infection in her uterus. She had a hysterectomy and the operation cost her Rs. 12,000 and she could not work for two months.  

Bijauli lives with her husband Virender Haldar, 65 and their 15-year-old grandson, Naveen Haldar, who is her daughter Seema’s son. The family lives in a Bengali colony in the town here in Udham Singh Nagar district. Most people in their colony are daily wage workers.

“Sometimes the severe pain recurs. I face a lot of trouble working too,” says Bijauli, speaking in a low tone about the persistent pain even after four years. But consulting a doctor again is too expensive for this family of daily wage workers. And so Bijauli continues to work through her pain. “I face a lot of trouble working too, but if I do not work then where will the money come from?” she asks.

Left: Bijauli and her grandson, Naveen near their thela parked near a tourist spot in Nanakmatta. Photo by Riya Chand. Right: Virender is a blacksmith and makes sickles for a living. Photo by Prakash Chand

The Ayushman Bharat scheme provides a coverage of up to 5 lakh rupees per family every year for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation.

Bijauli and her husband were not aware of such a scheme; they had to pay all the expenses by themselves. “We spent all our savings for the treatment,” Bijauli says.

Bijauli rushes to set up her thela by 8 a.m. after finishing all the household chores.

She buys the peanuts from the main Sitarganj market, about 13 kilometres away from the main market at Rs. 80 per kg. She then sells those peanuts for Rs. 120 a kilo. The other snacks she sells come from Kichha market which is about 40 kilometres away from Nanakmatta. She buys the packets in bulk.

Bijauli also sells peanuts from her thela. She buys them from Sitarganj market which is 13 kilometres away. Photos by Riya Chand

On average, she manages to earn Rs. 200-300 a day. Bijauli and Virender use their earnings to buy wood (to heat peanuts) and their daily necessities.

Virender sharpens and makes sickles at home, a skill he learnt from the blacksmiths at the Nanakmatta market.

“Nowadays people prefer Combine harvesters and other machinery for harvesting rather than doing it manually. As a result, the demand for sickles has decreased,” says Virender. Due to this, the livelihoods of skilled workers like Virender have been adversely affected. 

After Covid-19, Virender shifted his shop in front of Bijauli’s thela and she often helps him by sharpening the sickles in her free time. 

Before migrating to Nanakmatta, Bijauli and Virendra used to live in Nadia district in West Bengal and worked as daily wage labourers. Bijauli was 22 when she married Virender and the couple migrated to Uttarakhand and settled down in the Bengali colony.

“After marriage, both of us roamed around and came to Nanakmatta. My maternal uncle used to live here, so we also came here,” she says with a smile.

When they initially moved, they worked as farm labourers. “Earlier we worked in others’ fields. We used to grow paddy and wheat on the gurudwara’s land. In return we used to get 24-25 rupees as daily wage,” Bijauli says.

Bijauli and Virender have five daughters – Beena, Seema, Sheela, Shriti and Iti. As the family grew, the parents’ income wasn’t sufficient and so Virender shifted to making sickles.

Never having been to school,  the couple are keen that their children attend school. “They studied till class 4 or 5 in the government school of Siddha Nabadiya village, Nanakmatta. There was not much money at that time to manage the expenses of school as well as home. So we were no longer able to send them to school,” they explain.

They get 15 kilograms of rice and wheat per month as ration because but this isn’t enough for the family. They buy from the market after this gets over. They have to spend Rs. 25 to buy 1 kg of rice and Rs. 160 for buying five kg wheat flour.

“If all five daughters come home, then the 15 kg ration will finish up at once,” says Virender. 

The Covid-19 lockdown was hard on them. “During the lockdown, we didn’t work because of corona. We had to stay at home,” recalls Bijauli. Though, they received food grains under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana, it was difficult for them to manage other household expenses.

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Editor's note

Riya Chand is a class 12 student at the Nanakmatta Public School. She chose to document Bijauli’s story after a PARI workshop at her school. 

She says: “Working on Bijauli's story made me see how a major section of our society is not able to access facilities and policies of the government.”